The Podcast - Episode 5: Danielle Christmas on Being Intentional about Race and the Regency
And why it's also OK to just have fun bingeing 'Bridgerton'
Professor Danielle Christmas is a scholar in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her day-job, she researches serious topics about race and history, from white nationalism to the legacy of slavery and the Holocaust, and how issues like this are depicted in our cultural currency.
But when she’s off the clock and needs to unplug, Danielle Christmas turns to Jane Austen. And she says even though she doesn't always want to, she can't help bringing her knowledge of race and history into these stories.
As co-editor of the most recent issue of the JASNA journal Persuasions Online, Danielle Christmas has become a convener of conversations within the Janeite and academic community on race and the works of Jane Austen. She took some time recently to chat with us about that issue, and everything from Fanny Price and the history behind Mansfield Park, to binging “Bridgerton.” And she says, for her, escaping to a Regency world can be both guilt-free and fruitful. Here's our conversation.
Sometimes I really like the idea of putting my brain to the use of just having fun - of playing around in a text that's beautifully written and is doing subtle work, right? [During the day] I'm talking about slavery and the Holocaust. And my new work is on white nationalism. That's loud, there’s nothing [subtle] about that. And you have to pay attention to the corners and the contours of what's happening in [Jane Austen’s] novels, in order to really understand the stakes. And it's just a good brain exercise [and] it trains me to pay attention to the small things. Whereas maybe if I'm spending all of my time, just looking at the loud - you know, the loudness, the violence, all of that - I miss the corners.
Well tell me, Danielle, because you are reading with all of that loudness around you. And you're very aware of this and you're … choosing to dedicate the time to exploring all those issues in our culture, everything from our lynching histories in our culture and the legacy of slavery and the legacy of racism. What do you bring as a reader with your expertise to Jane Austen, does that enter into it very much? Do you find comfort in the fact that she was surrounded by these conversations? And they are, like you say subtle, but they might be there like Edward Said says, - look at what's not there as well as what is there.
Yes, exactly! That it's always there. Even if it's not there. It's there and it's absence and the fact that it's absent, is itself indicating something that we should be thinking about that's doing something whether or not it's present in the room.
I think it's fascinating that people that we talk to so much in this special issue that we're doing [in] Persuasions, there is a lot going on, of course about the triangle trade and how that works. And yet there are four lines in Mansfield Park … or the sum total of what Jane Austen clearly said, explicitly said - explicitly-ish! - that is her making a direct reference to slavery.
If we, we smart people, we smarty-pants people, have so much to say, based on four lines and its absence, then there really is something fascinating going on. Anytime there is a narrative, a television series, a book, anything that has to do, it is deeply embedded in a construction of class culture, right? And manners. There are all sorts of politics that surround that. And she was right. …
She was a brilliant woman and a brilliant writer who wrote knowing that, right? It's intentional. I think that sometimes it's fascinating to encounter resistance among people who love Jane Austen, out of fear, I think, that we're pushing politics into a space where it's like a protected space. So why are we bringing politics into yet another thing, right? Like, why are we? It's there! … If we were living in Regency times, there's no way to read her work without understanding it as construction of political narrative.
Not only that, or maybe not primarily that, but to write a romance novel at the time is itself a political exercise. And so acknowledging the truth of that - two things can be true at the same time. This is what I like, my major discovery in my 30s: Things can be true, a person can be, you know, racist and fascinating; a person could be writing just enjoyable romantic fiction, and also be doing something interesting and political. And I think that's what's happening. And it's easy to to get our hackles up on either side of that, to insist that it is only politics. And to forget that it's more fascinating.
So why are we bringing politics into yet another thing, right? Like, why are we? It's there! … If we were living in Regency times, there's no way to read her work without understanding it as construction of political narrative.
I think maybe this is my pop culture brain. But it's more fascinating because it's not just politics, right? Like she's doing something that is supposed to be an exercise in entertainment and pleasure. But she's playing this all out. And in a tableau that's tends to be people of a certain like wealth and class and that money comes from someplace, their comfort comes from someplace, the exclusion or not, of people.
You cannot read Mansfield Park outside of those four lines, without understanding Fanny, and her absence of wealth, her relationship to the wealthier family, and the way that that interaction works as anything except a political inquiry into how relationships with family and money work and power, and morals and ethics, right?
So everything you say, Danielle, so interesting about Mansfield Park: They have to get their money at Mansfield Park from somewhere. You mentioned the four lines about “dead silence.” There's so much in that novel, if you're closely reading the text, that are choices that Jane Austen is making. And … she's so good at her job that we forget that there's a puppeteer. There's a conductor, who's making choices about how Mansfield Park gets its money, about where Sir Thomas goes when he leaves Mansfield Park, about what Fanny Price is reading. So much more than the “dead silence,” you know?
So tell me more. Danielle, when I read it, it occurred to me that it's not it doesn't seem to me like too much of a stretch to see Mansfield Park and its dismantling, I would say it's kind of reduced to rubble. By the end of it. It's kind of destroyed! And the only person who's still standing is Fanny Price. And I feel like it could be a metaphor for a sort of dismantling of England through colonialism - morally - not paying attention to your house, being out there and not concentrating on what's real and what's actually ethical. And the consequences of that. Do you think that's too much of a stretch?
That’s provocative! I kind of love that! I would have to sit and think about that.
I think if that's plausible, and as a sort of larger metaphor, I think that maybe … you'll get my preemptive defenses against those people who tend to in general, tell me I'm bringing politics into politics-free spaces. So [they’ll say], “It's just romance. Right? It's happy. It's just pop culture. Why are you insisting?”
I think because of that, I tend to be more conservative in the claims that I make than you're being.
I think that my the most conservative account that I could easily defend - that I think that any person could reasonably defend: After you learn a little bit about Jane Austen's family in general (I resist psychoanalytic readings of an author through their work, don't think it's helpful), but you can't find out that her father has a trustee relationship with a plantation, or find out that her brother would patrol waters for slave ships, and not think about how knowing that in her relationship to them, and doing that would inform her decision to write this novel. And what to include, and not.
So I think the most conservative thing to say about slavery, history, [and] politics, and the novel, is that just the insistence that she's publishing this, and that she's insisting that people who like her novels, and enjoy her kind of writing, read this.
That is disruption. That is interesting. Just that, yes. So, just even stopping there, makes me curious.
I think sometimes I feel like my job as a teacher, maybe less so in my writing, but as a teacher, is just to make us notice things that we noticed, but didn't realize were important to notice. Like to just say if I was teaching a class, like, what do you guys think that a woman who was writing what we could call - even at the time -chicklit, right? Like a woman who's writing - yes, a smart woman - who's writing for other literate smart women, inasmuch as any woman is considered especially smart and literate at the time, who's interested in reading a romantic novel happened to do this. Like happens to mediate this particular story through the experience of a deep privilege? And, what you're saying, which is really the kind of collapse of privilege in one family, right? So, like, and this is where we're going. Just think about that, guys.
I'm a new historicist. So I want to know what's going on all around the page. I want to know what helped make the story and I want to know what the story is doing off of the page.
And so there is an entire ecosystem around what we can talk about - this really weird thing she did, right? Like, it's just a weird thing! There's a way to have told that story, so that all I needed to do was curl up on my couch and read it and not really have to do any heavy lifting. Not grapple with what it means that there are four lines of silence.
I think sometimes I feel like my job as a teacher, maybe less so in my writing, but as a teacher, is just to make us notice things that we noticed, but didn't realize were important to notice.
You know, Fanny really is the subject of abuse. … And I think because so many of us read the novel, and so many of us who are doing it outside of the context of the classroom, are doing it for pleasure reading. And ... if I'm reading this novel for pleasure, I don't want to sit with Fanny's pain very long. It is unpleasant. It's really cruel the way she's treated. But if we pause and think about that, that is quite a choice that Jane Austen made: to insist that somebody who wants to pick up the genre that they would expect her to be writing, that they have to walk through that maltreatment.
And it's not just, you know, a heroine who's mistreated. She is the subject of abuse. Compared to how people feel about Lizzy Bennet, you know, everyone wants to be Lizzy Bennet, right?
Fanny is meek. She is not … as charming. And, you know, she’s just coming from a different place. What a heroine she is, right? What a curious heroine she is compared to who we've come to know from Jane Austen's other novels. What do we do with that? What do we make of that? Sometimes I think the most fruitful things come from just realizing that there are questions that we haven't been asking.
Let me get to some of your work. Danielle. You are the Co-editor of the most recent issue of Persuasions … and it's a peer-reviewed publication of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America. And it features essays on Jane Austen and her world. Can you tell me a little bit about the most current issue, which is called “Beyond the Bit of Ivory, Jane Austen and Diversity”? By the way, I put the Call for Papers, link in our chat. It's so beautiful, the first paragraph of that.
I'm so glad that you think it's beautifully written. You know, it was fascinating. We encountered each other through the “Race and the Regency” series. That was a fascinating multi-month journey ... hearing different lectures. But .. because so many of us are asking questions about race, we're asking questions we didn't know we should have been asking .... So that's good and important work then, right?
If you sit back and think, OK, we're all kind of engaged in that thinking JASNA has jumped in. Like at Chawton [House], where they were doing the Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen exhibit and all of that. I mean, like, Whoa. Fascinating. Like, who is mad who's yelling? Why? What are the stakes to people? What's happening? … Like, what is that alarmism about? People who have different intellectual stakes in the way that we remember, and read Jane Austen.
We're all bringing a different set of thoughts and values and questions to this figure, as an abstract person, as a writer, as a creator of stories. We are mapping on to these stories, all sorts of powers that they may or may not have.
So this special issue is an opportunity for us, in this moment, to do some deep thinking about those questions.
Fanny is meek. … What a curious heroine she is compared to who we've come to know from Jane Austen's other novels. What do we do with that? What do we make of that? Sometimes I think the most fruitful things come from just realizing that there are questions that we haven't been asking.
You know, there are plenty of folks who have been working on the intersection of these questions in these histories and Jane Austen's work for a long time. So it's not as if, you know, finally scholars are coming to ask questions. But for maybe different scholars than before, and some who have been … in this wheelhouse, but different folks who maybe haven't been a part of the conversation yet.
And all of us, right, whether or not we've been a part of the conversation, or we're new to it, or having this conversation right now. And now is a different time to be having this conversation. Asking questions about Race in the Regency four years ago is interesting and important. But it's different right now. There is something different happening in the … stakes of the way that we think and argue and remember racial history.
The very first sentence in the Call for Papers [says] “the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the pandemic that has disproportionately killed along racial lines have shocked the world into a confrontation of inequities resulting from individual behavior, institutional design, and even attachment to limited and comfortable perspectives.”
That's really powerful language to introduce a Call for Papers about Jane Austen and the world of Jane Austen. What did you mean in that first sentence - “limited and comfortable perspectives that we might be attached to”?
Well, what it makes me think now about is the fact that I think a lot of us, if you read that Call for Papers and agree, like, Wow, that's an important conversation to be having. Then it's likely that at least a little bit, when we read Jane Austen or - heaven forbid - we like go binge a Netflix series, right? So … Why should we be wasting hours doing this, it’s purely an exercise in like, you know, self pleasure, whatever?
Well, let's just say what we're all thinking right now, which is: “Bridgerton.” So yes, as we're watching “Bridgerton” …?
Right?! As we all sit for one day and watch the entirety of the series!
We, I don't know, I won't project for lots of others, but I've talked to enough people who are the same people who would read that Call for Papers and think, “This is urgent and important.” And then would would realize that there is some degree of guilt that we feel when we are cozied up right now reading Jane Austen.
Like … what does it mean? That we're exercising our comfortable privilege to sit and relax and read a feel-good book, you know? I feel guilt about that. I feel guilt as a person, as a scholar who has a certain set of values. But as a Black woman who understands all of the history that's in the background of Jane Austen, I sit with some guilt about what is and is not there.
I think that it's really helpful to see that, and talk about that, and not suggest that, like, that guilt can't do fruitful things.
In this Persuasions issue, there are some folks who are not, quote, “scholars,” right? These are not the usual suspects that you would find in a typical peer-reviewed journal. Lots of people submitted, and some of the folks that we're publishing are non-university folks. And … we are all bringing a set of active considerations that typically are dismissed as inappropriate for informing questions and answers, and we're insisting that that's OK. And it's interesting, and it can do interesting stuff.
Some of the essays, unlike a sort of traditional peer-reviewed journal, are coming more from a place of practice. Some of them are coming more from a place of intellectual memoir.
And ... that is so valuable, especially when we're thinking about what it means to talk about this figure in this time, considering that the passing description of her is a woman in the 1800s, who wrote romance novels, right? Like that's the quick and short version. There's a lot of problems we need to fix right now. And that's really an indulgence and there's something to be worked out. It feels like an exercise in privilege. And that’s really [the source of] some of the resistance and alarmism, I think, is that we don't like what it might mean about us if we don't want to think about that.
Who wants to think about that, right?! Like who wants to think, “Oh, yeah, there's the Zong crisis, is happening in the background, right? Maybe Lord Mansfield, the real man had something to do with the Mansfield Park.” Like what a terrible … who wants to think about that?!
… But if you just read it - to take away that you feel guilty, there's something wrong with you if you don't enthusiastically embrace the idea of talking about race, slavery and Jane Austen, right? Like you are intellectually dishonest, whatever. I think it's more interesting that, like, none of us really want to do that thinking!
That she made it a little difficult to do that thinking. She could have been more explicit. But … an adult mind that's really fully formed and inclined to do critical thinking cannot read her novels and not ask questions about power, money, history, race. Like all of that stuff, the silences and the explicit statements: We have to notice it. We do or don't have to choose to ignore it. … It's not wrong, that on Tuesday, after doing my research on white nationalism, I don't really want to think about that.
… I have a lot of students who are inclined to think that talking about this stuff means that a professor's telling them they should feel guilty about stuff. … They're conditioned to think that, like I'm saying you should have been thinking about this all along and shame on you.
What I would say to them is, I think the most important thing about consuming any culture - so Jane Austen or any media - is to be deliberate and intentional … If you sit down and decide to binge “Bridgerton” … I'm gonna have fun. It's Netflix. Like, it's been a tough day. But do that knowing that today, you're … choosing not to think about all of the racial politics that Shonda Rhimes introduced by creating this alternate race history in England. The fact that she … [introduced] the visual politics of having characters of having a Black man and a white woman fall in love - in the context, just having interracial romance is itself a really political, challenging thing to represent. And to think about, especially now that I live in the south, to look at, to argue about, to remember to [think about] all of that. And Shonda Rhimes is like, “No, no, no. I'm not going to let you enjoy that without noticing what you're not noticing.”
So I think it's just fine to decide, I don't really want to do that right now., I don't want to do that thinking.
But tomorrow: Do that thinking, or know that it's thinking that needs to happen. And that you aren't appreciating the text for the fullness of what it is. ... You'll actually, I think, enjoy it more.
Maybe you consider, like, what a decision she made, right? Like what a fascinating decision she made that we're arguing now, again, about Queen Charlotte and whether she was Black. And our construction of race - it's fascinating to hear what people have to say about Queen Charlotte being Black, as if race operated in the same way then as it does now. All of that.
And in all of what you just said, something sticks out to me that I want to pick up - which is Jane Austen could have been more explicit. And I want to be careful that when I'm saying, “Fanny Price burns the bitch down!” You know, [that[ I'm not superimposing what I would have loved for Jane Austen to be thinking and saying. I do think, though, the more you hear the more you think, ‘“Yeah, there's that subtext. Maybe even not as subtle as I thought.”
And you mentioned something in “Race and the Regency” and your talk on the Zong slave ship - [that] calling Mansfield Park Mansfield Park is a little bit like writing a novel today and calling it Scalia House. There's no way that's not saying something.
So anyway, I think it's, it's not politics. It's life. If you think that we need to just sit and escape this, and your students want to just escape, and not look at this. It's not politics they're escaping from, it's basically life. It's just the real world that they're escaping from. But yet you need to escape from it. So do I and we all do that.
So it's about life. And it is painful. That's the other thing you said, Yes, it's painful. You know, wherever you're coming from when you're reading Jane Austen. And when you're having these conversations about privilege, it's painful.
But yet I feel like the art is what helps us work through it.
So I guess that's what I pull away: the art.
… But all of that noise, as you say. that loudness … was seeping in. So it's there. And it's just going to be unpacked and unraveled for generations to come.
Absolutely. You know, and as I'm listening to us, and listening to you and thinking about what both of us are talking about, I think [of] another discomfort: This is really a sacred cow. So I'm spending time with Janeites. And talking about all this interesting stuff and enjoying books. And I think something that we don't like, this group that I've been spending time with ..., is that Jane Austen probably had some racial attitudes that we really wouldn't like. Right?
So, really problematic racial attitudes and racial values.
And that's hard, right? Like, if we, if we love her work, if we feel like she was doing important, disruptive, interesting stuff, that then challenges us. I think that brings forward ... the stuff that's, like, what does it mean about me?
If I like a person, you know, I don't want to admit that about her because it means something about me. … What are my values if I enjoy that?
And it is itself a kind of, like: Two things can be true, right? It can be true that she's doing interesting, disruptive, fascinating stuff. And she, I would put money down on her having racial attitudes that were not too awesome, right?
I think the helpful thing to remember is we don't know, we'll never know, It's not really that interesting to argue about that.
But that actually, I think, is the core of some of that alarmism, the unstated core of it. Which is like, “Are you trying to indict Jane Austen?”
No, who can do that? What are we doing? It's so fascinating because I would say to a person who said that to me, like, I'm not gonna indict her, I don't have to! It is almost impossible to conceive of a world in which she would formulate her thoughts of how the world works, and how people work, and that she would think that I, a Black woman, am of equal intelligence.… She might - that'd be delightful! There's no way for me to know that! ...
But, you know, I actually think it's not that interesting to acknowledge that she was a person. That's, just a person of her time. And so I want to - even among the people who it's fun to have these conversations with - disrupt the sacred, you know, really kill the sacred cow. … We must admit that this person whose work we love … we're being intellectually dishonest if we refuse that.
And I actually think that's something that's really hard for us to do.
There are still people who would read that Call for Papers who would share my values or do interesting work, but who will still be unsettled if I say to them, that according to today's values, and the way that we construct the idea of racism, Jane Austen was probably racist. That really makes people uncomfortable.
Now, you know, it was my intellectual upbringing, like, how I was trained as a scholar, I was raised to be a little polemical. In some ways, I just kind of want to see what happens if I throw that out. ...
If I go into a room and say, “What are you going to do with that? Here's the way that works” But outside of being kind of mischievous, I actually think that's probably true. And that's OK. Like, I don't think it means I shouldn't enjoy her work. I don't think it means anything about anyone who does enjoy her work. I think it means something about all of us. If we are so deeply resistant to a likelihood … I think that requires some interrogation. And that's work that even people who read that call for proposals, lots of those people who are open to different ways of thinking, so they are not themselves villainous. But like, they're not noticing what they're not noticing. Which is maybe their own resistance to the idea that, according to the way that we reasonably assign the label racism, [Jane Austen] is probably racist. What do we do with that?
Well, you're challenging me, Danielle. Because I did have a question on here: In what ways is reading Jane Austen and Jane Austen, you know, of her time, possibly problematic for us? But it was painful to even write that question. And I asked myself, Is that really necessary?
And you're telling me, it is necessary. Again, it's another thing that's there or not there, to pull out and talk about, and just make sure, like you say, if, it's uncomfortable, why is it uncomfortable?
And it's okay, by the way to be uncomfortable! Something we all need to know.
But Danielle, basically, you can solve America, if we can all remember to keep two thoughts in our head. That's the first lesson. And then also just be OK with being uncomfortable. Just if we can all just do those two things. America, we’ll be on our way.
Yeah! To insist that you have some thinking to do does not make you a villain: It means you have some thinking to do. We all have different thinking to do.
And then I might not have the same work to do. But I’ve got my own stuff.
It's funny. … This is like when I say this to my graduate students, this is very much me projecting my judgment of myself. In retrospect, I used to call everything “problematic.” My first job out of college was as an organizer. I was a union organizer driving around Missouri - so driving around where you are! - organizing people. Low-income people in downstate Missouri, doing all sorts of, you know, life [challenges.] If I had the mission, my mission was to change the world.
That's a part of your bio I did not know! Danielle Christmas, ladies and gentlemen, driving around the byways, the blue highways of Missouri.
It's an interesting state. It is an interesting state to be driving around as a 20-something Black woman there to organize low -income folks who are, you know, working their hardest. So that was a formative experience.
But because of that quite reasonably, I had an eye for like, everything that is “problematic.” And yes, … and I'm not picking on you for using that word. It’s a useful word.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I'm around students, and daughters, you know who, yes, find everything problematic.
It's just, it's lazy. That's the thing to remember about myself, and what I noticed about my students. And the reason that I push them. It's not because they're calling something out that needs to be examined more closely. It's that it's lazy to call it “problematic” and stop right there. It's like, it is an empty explanation that explains nothing.
So you're right. It's kind of jargon and you do a great job of cutting through the jargon. Especially for an academic, right?.
See, that's my dream!
One thing I have to ask along these lines is that you are spending a lot of time, you say, among Janeites. And you mentioned not everyone would love that Call for Proposals.
I mean, what do you think, because these conversations are going on in a really dynamic, fantastic way with race and the Regency in the Jane Austen world. But there also people that would like to see - and they're coming out on Twitter and saying, openly and thoughtfully I think, that they would like to see things going faster. They'd like to see change. They'd like to see a more assertive discussion about diversity and equity.
But what is your sense of the JASNA community and its take on equity and diversity and approaching all of these questions in the readings of Jane Austen and her world?
You know, that is a terrific question. And it's a complicated question. I think that what's good about this special issue is that, this [is] one corner of what needs to happen, which is intellectual work, that we expressed commitment to prioritizing that thinking. So that intellectual work and making that accessible. That is one corner. And that's one corner that I'm excited to participate in.
The voices that are saying that that is not enough, are absolutely right. It would be dishonest of JASNA, were anyone just saying, and I don't think they would say, “You know, that's it, we're checking it off.” … So I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding of, JASNA’s ambition around this, right? …
A part of that is the intellectual work, of making that accessible as a publication.
But the other stuff the, like, let's revisit infrastructure. Let's ... look at our mission statement. And let's look at participation, the inclusion of other voices in the way the organization is run. All that absolutely needs to happen.
And that work always takes longer, right? It's always messier. It's always more complicated.
And I understand people saying, like, you know, “tick tock..” What I'm excited about is that this moment is giving us an opportunity to prioritize the discussions.
I would actually say of myself that I am, I'm probably unfairly patient. I am predisposed, maybe because of like, the, ugliness that I work with. And my need to like my particular intellectual project or public-facing scholarship is to figure out how to do that, how to make these conversations. possible, not hostile, really interesting, and move at the pace that people can have those conversations, right?
So, do I think we should all burn down the system to stop white nationalism? Sure. Is that going to happen? No. So that means that I've got to talk to a lot of people who really disagree with me ... So I have a sense of pace and scale … So I would not call myself the best measure of pace of change, right?
Also, I think, because I have the good fortune of doing what I think is this really important part of the work. And that primarily being, I've joined the editorial board of Persuasions and I'm really excited about making sure that this isn't a single special-issue thing. That this conversation continues and expands, that we're not ghettoizing this work.
So I know, that's a commitment they have. And I know those other conversations are happening. And I know there's frustration.
There's a reason for optimism, because we’re having a conversation. And the most important thing - and this does come from my days as a union organizer - is to cultivate allies where we can find them.
So I know that there are people who are part of JASNA leadership, who are all about making this happen, even if we're different people in different corners …
So make the make noise - because no change happens without noise.
Do you want to say any more about “Bridgerton?” I mean, I know that you saw it as an escape. Does it in any way advance the conversations, on all of these conversations on race and the Regency?
I actually think it does really important work. Because there are arguments now about casting of Anne Boleyn in an upcoming film production that has her as a Black woman - a dark-skinned Black woman playing opposite a very … expected casting for Henry. There are dozens of future Jane Austen adaptations to come, because we love them, right? They're going to continue. They will be made as long as we watch them.
At what point are .. we going to insist that we see that in those kinds of adaptations?
I actually think that's really important.
If someone told me, this raises the question of whether we're gonna cast Black women as leads in Jane Austen films … I actually think that's really interesting.
I think so many of us like Jane Austen because we are Lizzy Bennet, right? We identify. We all want to be the people, we want to be leading ladyl. We're on the adventure, I would say even more so than lots of other works.
And Jane Austen's awesome, because she makes that easy. And her stories make that easy.
What does it mean for a new generation of viewer if we insist that you can look different?
I think part of my grappling ... in my own journey, is feeling frustration and guilt that I enjoy something that insists that I cannot look like the person who is the lead, right? What would it have meant if that wasn't a thing to grapple with? Because people telling Jane Austen stories today already did the work of saying, “No, her stories really transcend that. It doesn't have to look like … we expect it to look.”
That would have made a difference.
And I actually think that “Bridgerton” is insisting that he next time there's a production, if they decide to insist on a certain kind of casting, they're being deliberate and intentional about that.
And that's provocative, right? It means that if you are making the new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility [you remember]… that “Bridgerton” was super successful, right? If you're a person who wants something super successful, how much of success of “Bridgerton” could be attributed to - at least our interest at first - because of that strange world Shonda Rhimes [made] for us.
So it would be shrewd for the future adaptors of Jane Austen's work to calculate on whether there is any value in being equally provocative and making us curious. And actually, I do, I think that's more important than I would have expected. And I think - this is the mischief-maker in me - I think it's good to make a person be deliberate in saying, no, they're not going to do something. .. [If] you're making an adaptation, you should have to tell yourself now that you're only going to cast the usual suspects.
Yes, it's changed the default in a way, maybe forever. And maybe it's been a long time coming. I mean, if you look back on so many adaptations, I think very soon, if we don't already, we'll be thinking, “Boy, that is a white world they created, and that doesn't even seem realistic.”
OK, so very much a random aside: When you're reading Jane Austen's descriptions of her characters now with a kind of an ear and an eye for colorism and depictions and descriptions, a lot of her lead characters - I think Eleanor Dashwood - [are] just described as Brown. So does that make it easier for you as a writer, a reader when you were younger? Did you like Soniah Kamal, who wrote Unmarriageable and who I've talked with. She said, from the very first time reading, Pride and Prejudice, it was Pakistani. Do you do make things what you need them to be in your head? I know I do as a reader as well.
I think that's the only way that I can really enjoy Jane Austen. But I like that she makes that possible. ... I wouldn't go so far as to say that that is on a top 10 list of what makes her so accessible. … You know, now that I'm thinking about it, I really actually do think it's .. that she is so accessible because she makes it so easy for us to be the heroine. I do, you know, just as a reader, as a person who reads Jane Austen, for pleasure, it is easier to be transported by her work than lots of other things that I read that I would consider comparable.
And we won't give her more credit than would have been deserved. But it I think one thing that's interesting as we talk about … the experience of reading is that it might have been unconscious. 5here are a lot of things that can be unconsciously happening. … But either way, it's interesting.
Do you have anything else to add that we haven't covered?
I don't have anything else to add, It's such a pleasure. These were great questions. I hope that it is entertaining and fruitful for listeners. That too on my epitaph: “She was entertaining and taught us stuff”!
You are entertaining, and you have taught us stuff, Danielle Christmas!
Thank you so much for joining us on the Austen Connection.
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Here are some awesome links to the things Danielle Christmas talked about in this conversation. Keep reading, and let us know your thoughts.
The current issue of JASNA’s Persuasions Online: http://jasna.org/publications-2/persuasions-online/volume-41-no-2/editors/
Jane Austen & Co.’s discussion series “Race and the Regency” - it’s awesome: https://www.janeaustensummer.org/raceandtheregency
More on Jane Austen & Co: https://www.janeaustenandco.org/
NYT on Chawton House Museum and Black Lives Matter: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/27/world/europe/jane-austen-slavery-museum.html
More on Danielle Christmas: https://englishcomplit.unc.edu/faculty-directory/danielle-christmas/